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What can happen when change is embraced?

May 26, 2011
by Lori Ashcraft, PhD, William Anthony, PhD, Steve Albrecht, MSED, MBA, David Lundquist, PhD, Steve Oppenheimer, LMFT, and Patsy Ramirez
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Harmony Center reinvents its mission and takes a renewed approach to recovery
Most of us don't like change, so embracing it is difficult. But we can overcome this difficulty by, in effect, “changing the way we change.” We have a shining example of this to share-about a program, a county, and a group of people who together went through a change process with grace and determination and, in so doing, transformed their program and their futures.

Making the case for change

Our story begins with a phone call from Steve Albrecht, administrator of a community mental health program (Oasis Rehabilitation Center, Indio, Calif.) that serves the people of small desert towns in southeast California. He has been told his peer support program (operated at The Harmony Center, also in Indio) was no longer in full alignment with the recovery-oriented objectives established by Riverside County. He's surprised, because he's doing what the County contracted with him to do two years earlier.

Integral to the transformation of programs at harmony center in indio, calif., were (l-r) david lundquist, phd, desert region administrator; patsy ramirez, peer center coordinator; shannon hooper, senior peer specialist; alison emery, director of consumer affairs; steve oppenheimer, mft, harmony center director; and steve albrecht, ms ed., mba, administrator at oasis rehabilitation center.
Integral to the transformation of programs at Harmony Center in Indio, Calif., were (l-r) David Lundquist, PhD, Desert Region Administrator; Patsy Ramirez, Peer Center Coordinator; Shannon Hooper, Senior Peer Specialist; Alison Emery, Director of Consumer Affairs; Steve Oppenheimer, MFT, Harmony Center Director; and Steve Albrecht, MS Ed., MBA, Administrator at Oasis Rehabilitation Center.

Albrecht explains that the County has offered to fund a year's worth of consultation that would focus on bringing his program into alignment with the county's recovery vision. That's the good news. The bad news? The Harmony Center program has a year to make fundamental changes and become a recovery-based peer center.

Now, we're hooked. After gathering our team around the speakerphone, we ask Albrecht for details about the program itself, the County's vision, the people served by the program, and how they feel about the change. By then, Steven Oppenheimer, the director of Harmony Center, has joined with Albrecht as well.

The two explain that Harmony Center began with the idea that it could be a welcoming environment for people diagnosed with a mental illness-a comfortable, safe, drop-in center where members come for lunch, activities and events. While the Center's programs offered a welcome alternative to traditional clinical settings, they faced a basic problem: their results could not be measured using the County's metrics for success.

The County's key metrics included total monthly census, a fairly typical set of key indicators, and surveys of client, stakeholder, and staff satisfaction. In comments to Albrecht, County officials expressed concern as to whether members were receiving the focus and skills needed to navigate issues like having safe and stable housing, finishing school, starting vocational training, getting jobs and forming relationships. They weren't seeing that kind of improvement in the Center's results.

And, since their recovery vision hadn't materialized, the County officials wanted change. “We want you to turn yourself into a recovery center where members are trained in the life skills they need to participate fully in mainstream life,” they said.

As they thought about these comments, the “Two Steves” recalled times when members wanted more guidance in specific areas and in specific ways and when they expected more from themselves and their members. They acknowledged that the County officials had a point and, in so doing, got over their initial anxiety and got motivated to make improvements. They asked to consult with them.

“Tell the County we'll take the job,” we told them.

“I didn't want to come to The Harmony Center when it was a drop-in center. All people did was sit around and smoke, and since I was trying to quit smoking I found it difficult to be there. Now that it has transformed into an education center I have a reason to come. I enjoy hanging out there and feel I am learning something. Being around people who understand my illness makes me feel like I belong somewhere. I do not know what I would do without The Harmony Center.” -Deidra, Regular Member

Seeing what was possible

Because organizations recover and transform the same way people do, we approach consultation first by giving staff hope that change is possible and showing them an example of what a recovery program looks and feels like. To this end, the “Two Steves” and Patsy (Harmony Center's program coordinator) attended the “metamersion” program offered by Recovery Innovations in Phoenix.

There, they participated in classroom training with people across the country and observed peer-run, recovery-based programs in action. From this experience, they realized that the Harmony Center had become a “destination”-a “one-size-fits-all” drop-in center. They compared this approach to one that could offer customized classes and empower individual members to set recovery goals and take ownership of their own recovery. They realized that the Harmony Center's approach inadvertently perpetuated dependency-the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”